Archive | July, 2013

What Dogs Say

31 Jul

What Dogs Tell Us

When I go to a new place, I first listen to the dogs, and only after them do I listen to other human beings. The dogs tend to tell one more.

In the Pacific Northwest, dogs are treated like royalty. I gathered one example just today as I sat on a park bench and a passing woman let her dog stop to converse with (sniff) me as though it was, for the owner, a mildly uncomfortable yet totally necessary interruption. One doesn’t merely pull hard on the necks of princes and princesses to move them along.

Another example: I was walking a trail near my home one day and a curly haired, panting little gentleman came around the corner, saw me, and enthusiastically started my direction, only to graze my leg with his side and keep going—an intimidation tactic, surely. ‘Swathford! No!’ his female owner called. Over-apologetic, she said to me, ‘I’m so sorry.’

It was hardly anything to be sorry about. But what in the world kind of name is Swathford for a dog?

As I passed the same couple with the same Swathford, Swathford stopped just around the corner and looked at me as if to say, ‘Oh you … You already got me in trouble once.’ Nevertheless, he passed me and grazed my leg with his side just the same—surely he was trying to wear me down, I’m convinced—inciting his owners to reprimand his strangely noble sounding name once again. If they’re not treated like royalty, they’re named like royalty.

There are certain areas of certain cities where having a certain dog is similar to having a certain kind of car. Just as certain kinds of cars are meant to convey that one is willing to outrun the police and probably has before, the ownership of certain kinds of dogs are meant to convey that one is not to be trifled with.

There are two commonplaces one often hears about pit-bulls: 1) they always go crazy and attack children long after their domestic tenure and 2) once they latch on, they never let go. An owner of two pit-bulls that I know once told me that his presciouses fought often. The only thing that makes them let go is rubbing alcohol to the bared gums and eyes. For that brief, burning instant, they settle their differences and worry about themselves. Nothing more to see here, folks.

In Ireland, I noticed, the mere shadow of a person causes the dogs to flee in panic. Once, as I was walking with a friend of mine, I saw a shaggy-haired thing sniffing around the street. Zealous and goofy, I called out to the dog, speaking absolute gibberish in an enthusiastic voice. The dog looked up at me very quickly, paused for a moment to study me, and ran the other direction as fast as he could. I couldn’t help but think that an American dog would have come to me.

I started to worry: Do the people here kick the dogs?! Why do they cower? Why do they lower their heads? How come there were so many strays walking around? These are questions I had not the time or the energy to study.

Yes, dogs say more with their actions than they do with their nonexistent words. It is my suspicion that, even if dogs could talk, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t need to.


Success by Martin Amis

13 Jul


One of the appeals of the English novel to Americans is its preoccupation with class distinctions. To an American, class distinctions are quite alien—no matter how real they may be subterraneously. Dickens depicted class with cartoonish humanity. C.S. Lewis depicted class with pious vulgarity. As the political and economic spectrum changed in England, the class system, as it happened everywhere, grew a bit complicated.

Martin Amis’s fiction is almost always a sort of love song to the complicated transition from old to new, good to bad and local to foreign. Success is the least thematically subtle of his catalogue. It alternates between two separate first-person narratives: two step brothers who happen to live together in a London flat and who happen to hate each other. The younger brother, Terry, was adopted at the age of nine after his father killed his baby sister.

Despite the adoption, he managed to grow up lower class (the term ‘yob’ is often used of him as a pejorative). His adulthood is a sex-less self-pitying degeneration featuring rotting teeth, thinning hair, daily hangovers and impotence. He considers himself such an eyesore and a ‘quivering condom of ineptitude and neurosis’ that any mere acknowledgement of his existence is welcomed:

‘I say ‘thank you’ five times a morning in places like these. Thank you for letting me in, thank you for acknowledging my presence, thank you for taking my order, thank you for taking my money, thank you for giving me change. The other day, in London’s Paddington station, I said the words ‘thank you’ to a hot-drinks machine …’

Diametrically opposite is his older stepbrother, Gregory, who grew up upper class. He drives a nice car and works a job at an art gallery where he gets to do whatever he wants. He’s quite successful with the opposite as well as same sex.

Here we have two unreliable narrators convincing us that the other is less reliable. Yet one thing is clear: they both have incestuous desires for their younger sister, Ursula. Terry abates this desire by channeling his attentions to a naïve temp worker at his sales job. Gregory acts on his desire for his sister quite unguiltily, or so he tells us.

Gregory also acts on his desires for Terry’s new girl, Jan, in the brief window of time he’s given when Terry leaves their date early to attend to his sister in the hospital after a suicide attempt.

In other words, in every area that Terry isn’t successful, Gregory is. Wherever Terry might be successful, Gregory gets there first. But something peculiar starts to happen to Gregory after a strange, transformative experience in an ominous subway station. He starts to lose his nerve, his success and narrative confidence just as Terry, in turn, starts to gain all three.

If Amis was a moralist in the classic sense, there would perhaps be a set of reasons for this transfiguration. Perhaps a Dickensian criminal from the beginning would reoccur in the end as a voice of wisdom. However, Amis here makes use of the one moral he has always stuck to—avoiding cliché.

How does one avoid cliché? We can’t all smash it apart and write like aliens the way that Burroughs did, nor can we all unfold our narratives and invest in an index-amount of information in high-style like Joyce. Some have to skateboard ever close but never into the looming office building of cliché if only to play around it.

With the stink and spirit of New Criticism still clinging to the air like potato salad at a wedding reception, it can be intimidating for artists to escape the analytic eye of the ever-shrewd book-chatter, always eager to trace the artistic teleology of an idea. Some writers are quite warranted in their pithiness when dealing with their public. Harlan Ellison, when asked where he gets his ideas, often responded, ‘Schenectady.’

As often as Amis gets his ideas from London, Dickensian cartoonishness and Nobokovian gamesmanship, Amis seems to pull from the very discourse in which thought-trends and cliché characters are born. This seems necessary. One can’t go to war with cliché unless one faces it head on. So here, Amis makes psychology his playground. Here we have incest, sibling rivalry, role reversals, child-abuse/murder, impotence and its eventuation through the self-loathing failure of one adulthood and the dismissive success of the other. This is all totally structural—consciously—which I imagine didn’t make it fun for the critics looking for psycho-peek-a-boo symbols throughout the text. Amis already did their work for them.

They may not have a great time with it, but we as readers do. Realizing that one is either dismissed as bombastic or rejected as heretical if one whimsically compares a modern writer to Homer and Ovid, I’ll say this: In the same manner that the Greek poets and dramatists played around with their own myths, Amis plays around with the myths of our time. In a time when it might be rightly said that every culture gets the literature it deserves, Amis does us one better.

A Year of Blogging

6 Jul

A Year of Blogging

I hear talk of plague: laptops burning out, flopping over, dying and spitting out sparks. I tug on my collar whenever people tell me how old their laptops were when they died. 2008. 2010, in some cases. Mine is from 2006 and has yet to show any signs of even catching a common flu, much less the technological Ebola that seems to be happening to Ipods, Iphones, Zunes, tablets, kindles and zippits of all kinds.

Longhand is always an option but as long as old Betsy is still showing vital signs, I’ll kindly make use of her. She works good but looks bad, like most veteran farm oxen. There are pencil tips wedged between the keys along with crumbs of unknowns I can’t ever seem to get out. The screen is perpetually dusty save those instances when someone offers to clean it for me, followed by scolding, dentist-like enquiries as to why I haven’t cleaned my screen in so long, which I have to take in politeness since they are offering me their services.

There are bits of gunk in the hard-to-reach crevices and, in some cases, right out in plain sight, all of which have collected cobweb-looking dust. I once went into Fry’s Electronics where an employee absolutely insisted on cleaning my screen and giving it a good wipe-down. When she opened the laptop, I felt the way you do when a new girlfriend shows up unannounced to your apartment and uses your uncleaned bathroom for the first time.

The device is sufficient for writing and activities like email, but I’d be afraid to test its strength. I work a real job which, if Henry Miller had worked there, would probably be called something like The Cosmodemonic Literature and Lounge Loft. I work there mostly in the evenings—counter to my morning preference—which often means I wake up later than I would like and guilty for doing so, never really getting around to anything like breakfast until 11:30.

Working in the evening often pulls a cheap trick on me—it would like me to think that my day is over before it even begins. Grumbling and frowning the whole time, I get ready to face the day, which means I’m driving around deciding on which coffee shop I want to go to in order to get some writing time in. The decision will be contingent on the time of day, the day of the week, my mood, the weather and my particular craving for a particular drink. Once I get there, it is a constant war to find plugs, since I don’t have a battery that lasts more than seven minutes. This is always an awkward affair. I’m always sitting across from people who are too shy to make conversation. I know the feeling. I feel the same. We’re always stumbling over one another, cutting into conversations and personal business asking if they could … maybe … oh sorry, but can I just plug this in?

Why then, you might ask, do I fight for plugs about town when I can just as soon find a plug and write at home? Because, everyone knows this: you go about town to meet people. The thing is, no one meets anyone this way because everyone is too busy. Everyone sits around in Wi-Fi hotspots with furrowed, studious brows over their schoolwork, personal work and upside-down newspapers as though it’s the last possible place they can go. We all know this isn’t true. People want community, even if they don’t admit it.

I guess this is what blogging is about. I’ve been told that’s what it’s about. But then, people are always telling you what something is about. Yet, this particular about seems right.

So when I look back over my last year of blogging, I feel happy with a sense of accomplishment that I’ve been able to keep at it. Yet, I realize I don’t feel very communicative with a community. This is no source of puzzlement. I have only to compare my blog with the blogs of friends and see the difference as to why they have strong, ongoing communication with their followers. For one, and this is not exactly a huge shocker, they are systematic in their blogging subject. I imagine the reader always knows what genre to expect when they read these blogs, whether the blogs are devoted to fiction, opinion pieces or cooking.

My blog, on the other hand, is unsystematic. As far as the unsystematic goes, I’ve seen worse, but ‘I’ve seen worse’ has never been the most useful excuse. My blog is vaguely literary. It’s also vaguely devoted to ‘empty theory’ which, I suppose, is just a premeditated way of warning the reader that there will be random pieces of writing whose genre I’m not even sure of.

I’ve often thought it would be beneficial and relevant to discuss more current books, or books that followed some thread, or books everyone is reading. The reason I didn’t follow a formula was I felt that, with a blog, I had the freedom to write about things in an essayistic form without the constraint of magazine and newspaper deadlines. I felt that if I were to write about more current things, more current books, that my blog would merely be an amateurish imitation of journalism, which is never what I wanted it to be. I admit I’m not sure how to solve this particular problem.

I’m also aware that most blogs assume a personal tone and invite comments. I suppose my tone, for the most part, isn’t initially ‘personal,’ but I’m not so worried about that. The particular subjects don’t seem to call for it necessarily. However, I suppose I could have structured some of the posts so that they invited open-ended discussions, rather than ending most of them with an opinion that ends up on the page fully-formed and forbidding.

I’m open to suggestions. Perhaps it will be a year yet before I develop something more systematic, but as for now, I’ll continue to write about books in no particular order while making use of useless theories. I’m bad at this part, so excuse the trite phrasing, but, what do you think?